Category Archives: Politics

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.

What I Learned from Watching Kaya Henderson Lead

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After nearly 10 years working in the district, Kaya Henderson is stepping down from her post as the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

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As the chancellor, Kaya consistently made the case that it is vital that the district thrive and provide a high-quality neighborhood option for students across the city.

As an outsider looking in, I did not agree. In Education Next, I made the case that D.C. should transition to an all charter school system. And, in the Washington Post, I argued that maintaining neighborhood schools in their most exclusionary form would increase historical inequities.

But you can learn a lot from people you disagree with.

And Kaya taught me much about how a superintendent can effectively execute an ambitious agenda.

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If I had to sum up what I learned from Kaya, it would be this: communicate a clear agenda of apple pie and spinach, and make it clear that getting the apple pie is tied to eating the spinach.

Too often, reform superintendents lead with all spinach: teacher evaluations, school closures, budget cuts, accountability systems, etc.

They say: “the system needs to be fixed.”

Rarely do the put forth a crystal clear vision of what schooling should look like; rarely do they describe the rich educational opportunities that all children deserve.

They give families little to believe in.

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Kaya consistently put forth a compelling vision of what DCPS could be.

Moreover, even when she had to make incredibly difficult decisions – such as when she closed 10% of schools in the entire city – she tied these decisions to providing broader educational experiences to children.

As the Washington Post detailed:

Henderson’s proposed closures also triggered opposition, but she is widely seen to have handled community relations more deftly than her predecessor, sponsoring a series of public meetings throughout the city and inviting parents and activists to help refine the closure plan.

The savings will be plowed back into schools to improve programming, including into libraries and arts and foreign language offerings, Henderson said, adding that the public will get a detailed view when school-by-school budgets are released in the coming months.

About 140 staff positions will be lost, but given normal attrition through resignations and retirements, Henderson said, “we actually feel like the loss will be minimal.” She said she does not expect any teacher evaluated “effective” to be out of a job.

Most superintendents avoid closing schools, or if they do close schools they do so in a manner that alienates communities.

But Kaya rightfully connected these hard decisions to a better future, and most importantly, she followed through on expanding educational programming.

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The best superintendents are populists, not technocrats.

They put forth a compelling educational vision that inspires the public.

But populists are not all the same. Some put forth a beautiful vision that is grounded in pragmatism, while others put forth a beautiful vision that is pure fantasy.

Kaya, I think, was a pragmatic populist.

And she taught me that this is likely the most effective way in which to lead a school system.

I don’t think I could every lead a public system as effectively as she did; but if I ever find myself in this position, I will strive to live out the lessons that I learned from her.

What’s Going on in Newark?

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I’ve written a bit about Newark: on reports glossing over of the exceptional performance of Newark’s charter schools; on the “lesson” of the Newark reform efforts; and on what we should make from the fact that families overwhelming rank the best charters highest in their enrollment preferences.

In all these posts, I try to navigate the complicated facts of excellent charter performance, high family demand, and voter preference for Mayor Baraka, who, to some extent ran on a platform against the Newark education reform efforts.

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Now we have an additional piece of information: Newark’s “Unity Slate,” which consisted of two charter supporters and one candidate backed by the mayor, just won seats onto the Newark school board – a board that may see schools returned back to it in the coming years.

Here are the vote counts:

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The two charter supporters placed first and second.

How to interpret this election?

You could interpret it as a truce: that the unity slate is a sign that political leaders want to wind down the education reform wars.

You could interpret it as a reversal: that Baraka’s power has ebbed and that the charter community’s power is on the rise.

You could interpret it as a signal: that in school board elections voters are willing to take their support of high-quality charter schools to the ballot box.

My guess is that all of these interpretations hold some truth.

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I recently wrote about a recent poll that showed that New Orleans voters support charter schools and unified enrollment systems.

In Newark, we have evidence that public school parents have a strong preference for high-performing charter schools, and that voters are electing school board candidates that support charter schools and choice.

This evidence of what local communities actually prefer seems pretty far removed from the national narratives on Newark and New Orleans.

Both these cities are extremely complicated. They have long histories of institutional racism and poverty. I don’t think that one poll, election, or set of test scores can tell the whole story.

But I do think we good evidence in both of these cities that charter schools are providing a better education, that families recognize this, and that voters support policies that continue the expansion of access to high-quality charter schools.

Now, we are seeing these preferences show up at the ballot box.

Time will tell if this is a blip or the emergence of longer-term voting trends.

These Two Things Might Be Connected

 

In Chicago, the mayor offered the teachers union a contract that would have prohibited a growth in overall charter enrollment (the union rejected the contract).

Elsewhere, state Republican leaders are taking power from local school boards.

I hope that they do this thoughtfully. Detroit is surely a cautionary tale. New Orleans, on the other hand, has seen major increases in student performance during its state takeover.

With local government and labor leaders colluding to limit educational opportunity, it’s not shocking that state officials are beginning to intervene.

What is interesting is how long this has taken. Republicans, who supposedly support choice and competition, too often protect local school districts because they are strongholds of political power.

For whatever its worth, I probably share many of the teachers union’s frustrations with the management of Chicago public schools.

We just differ in some of our opinions on how to create better schooling for students in Chicago.

I do no think a better contract will help.

But I do think reducing poverty will help.

There is some agreement between us.

 

Voting For and Against High-Performing Charter Schools

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Try and reconcile these two facts:

(1) Over 50% of Newark families tried to enroll their child in NorthStar Elementary, a high-performing charter school managed by Uncommon Schools.

(2) In 2014, Ras Baraka ran for mayor of Newark on an education platform that opposed much the superintendent’s “One Newark” plan, which included a significant increase in charter schooling. Baraka won 54% of the vote.

While I don’t know how many of the families who tried to enroll in NorthStar Elementary also voted for Mayor Baraka, I imagine there is substantial overlap.

I also guess there’s a similar patter with the de Blasio election and the 22,000 families who tried to enroll in Success Academies.

It is likely the case that families who are trying to enroll their children in high-performing charter schools are also voting for elected officials who run on anti-charter school platforms.

Why might this be?

First, many families are probably not single issue voters. They might vote for a candidate whose policies they largely support even if they disagree on education.

However, for families who are voting on policy grounds and have their children in public schools, it’s likely that education will be a key issue. So the “other policy considerations” argument probably doesn’t explain everything.

The more powerful explanation, I think, is that most people vote based on identity; they vote for people who they think are like them / share their values / belong to their tribe.

Mayor Baraka’s campaign slogan – “when I become mayor we become mayor” – perfectly captured the fact that he shared a common identity with many people in Newark.

To the extent charter advocates wish to alter these voting patterns, it seems like one of two things needs to happen:

(1) Charter advocates need to mobilize more charter families into single issue voters.

(2) Charter advocates need to align themselves with candidates who share a common identity with charter school families.

Neither will be easy to accomplish.

Mobilization is technically difficult. It is hard to get very busy people with strong identities to vote solely on the basis of one policy issue.

Building broad coalitions is emotionally difficult. It is hard to build relationships and trust with people who are very different from you.

Yet, despite their difficulty, both mobilization and coalition building seem very important to the goal of significantly increasing the number of families who can benefit from high-performing charter schools.

Addendum: Make sure to read Ryan Hill’s good comments. And Seth Andrew’s.

Southern Democrats and Educational Opportunity

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After LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act, legend has it that he said: “There goes the South for a generation.”

His point being that Republicans would capture the white Southern vote for the next few decades.

LBJ’s prediction has in many ways come true. The South is a Republican stronghold.

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Last week, the Georgia legislature passed a bill to that will lead to a statewide referendum this fall.

The question on the referendum will be whether or not to amend the state constitution to: “to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance.”

The bill received very little support from state Democrats.

I went to Atlanta to testify in support of the bill. I do not know if my testimony had any effect.

In the end, Republicans carried a bill that, I believe, will provide increased educational opportunity for poor and minority youth.

Of course, I may be wrong.

But I was confident enough in my opinion to testify in front of a public body.

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I have voted for a Democrat in every election that I’ve ever participated in, save for one: I voted for Bobby Jindal during his first successful bid for governor.

I voted for Jindal because of his support for high-quality charter schools.

In voting for Jindal, I had to vote for a candidate who has taken the following stances:

  • Citizens of the same gender should not be able to express their love through marriage.
  • Medicaid should not be expanded to provide poor families with health insurance.
  • Creationism should be taught alongside evolutionism.

It pains me that, in the South, I had to choose between voting for educational opportunity and voting for LGBT rights, healthcare for the poor, and science.

But that’s the choice I faced.

I don’t know if I voted correctly.

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At the Clinton Library, which I recently visited, there is a display about how a Southern Democrat named Bill Clinton helped grow charter schools across the country.

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Will Democrats ever be able to capture the South from Republicans?

I don’t know.

To win back the South, they will, I suspect, need to capture more of the center.

Their current education platform may be preventing them from doing so.

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Politics aside, I worry that Southern Democrats are on the wrong side of history.

I believe Southern Democrats can course correct and end up on the right side of history.

I hope that this occurs.

In part because I want the party to be the best version of itself, but mostly because it will benefit children who desperately need their support.

Get Your Government Hands Off My School District

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Sorry for the over the top title of this post, but you might recall the Tea Party protestor who launched the rally cry: “keep you government hands off my medicare.

The irony here, of course, is that medicare is a government program.

Recently, I was reading about the eight states where charter schools remain illegal.

They are: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Interestingly enough, at every political map I looked at, each one of these states except for Vermont (blue) and West Virginia (purple leaning red) was tagged as a red state.

So what’s going on here? Why are red states protecting government monopolies?

Well, first of all, we might want to revise the conventional wisdom that republicans support charter schools while the democratic party is split on the issue.

Republicans seems split on the issue too.

Second, this seems to re-enforce the adage that politics is about identity not about policy. Many republicans have two identities: a national identity based on more abstract principles (freedom, markets, etc.), and a local identity based on real relationships. On certain issues, the local identity (I like my child’s teachers) will trump the national identity (government monopolies are terrible).

Third, no politician is immune to politics. Schools boards and superintendents are often very powerful political actors, especially in smaller towns, where the school district can often be the largest employer. So it’s not surprising to me that many of the holdout states have large rural populations.

I don’t really have much more to say on the issue. I just saw the state list and found it interesting.

My Voting Hypocrisy

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Robin Hanson often writes that politics is about identity, not policy.

Why do people vote?

To affiliate with others like them. People want to be part of a tribe. Preferably one that has high status.

People do not vote because they’ve reasoned through the thick waters of policy and have found a politician that aligns with their policy vision.

Often when I read Robin – on this issue as well as others – I nod my head and say: “Yes, that’s true for the masses but not for me.”

This is most often a foolish sentiment.

For the past decade, I’ve almost always voted in federal elections, especially in presidential elections. For most of my adult life I have lived in Louisiana (a deeply red state) and voted for Democratic candidates in presidential races. In short, I knew at the outset that my vote was worthless (in terms of affecting the outcome) but I voted anyway. Why? I wanted to feel like I was the kind of person who voted for the “right person.”

I was seeking an emotion, not a political outcome.

Yet, when it came to local elections, I voted less often. During a recent election cycle, I didn’t even vote in the school board race, despite the fact that I was working (many hours a week) in education.

So, in elections where statistically I had the most chance in affecting the outcome – and where I had the most knowledge on the policy issues at hand – I voted less frequently than I did for federal elections, elections where my vote had no chance of having an impact, and where I had little expertise in the major policy issues of the office.

What do I take away from this?

My ability to rationalize my own behavior is immense; it is incredibly difficult to consistently align my actions around a professed set of beliefs; my objectiveness is constantly under attack from my desire to belong.

You are probably no different.

Gilens, Charter Schools, and the Education Reform Advocacy Agenda

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To summarize the past two posts:

1. Gilen’s research demonstrates that when 80% of the wealthy support a policy, that policy is much more likely to pass (though probability is still only 50%).

2. Depending on the poll 70-90% of the wealthy support charter schools.

3. Depending on the poll, 60-75% of the general public support charter schools as well.

This data bodes well for continued charter school expansion.

But I’d like to consider an other angle: what does this mean for education reform advocacy strategies?

Over the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the number of “pro-reform” advocacy organizations. Groups like Democrats For Education Reform, Stand for Children, and Black Alliance for Education Options are more active than ever before.

So to the extent their agendas includes charter schools, what should these organizations be doing?

Well, it seems that the national public relations battle is in good shape. Both the wealthy and the general public support charter schools. So I’d spend less time there.

At this point, the battle seems to be much more one of special interests. At every level of government, there are officials that can either promote or restrict charter schools. The key to expanding charters, simply enough, seems to be putting enough pressure on these officials so that they support policies that promote charter schools.

Of course, different officials might respond to different tactics. For some it might be education on the issues, for others it might be campaign donations, for others it might be a public march in front of their offices.

But these types of efforts – those directly tailored at specific individuals that influence very specific policy – seem like the best use of advocacy resources.

Additionally, if the wealthy in a specific micro-market do not support charter schools, cultivating their support is probably useful as well.

But educating or influencing the general public seems like a waste of resources, both because the public already generally supports charter schools, and Gilen’s research indicates that their preferences do not have that much impact.

So here’s my advice to charter school advocates:

1. Identify which political officials can limit charter school expansion.

2. Determine what tactics will influence these specific officials.

3. Direct the vast majority of advocacy resources to these tactics.

A caveat: I’m not arguing that it’s ideal that the wealthy have so much influence or that special interest advocacy seems to be the best use of resources. I’m just trying to read the world as it is.

Lastly, I’m by no means in expert in politics. Let me know if I’m misreading any of the data, or if any additional readings would add nuance to the above.